There’s no question that COVID-19 is the number one issue in the world right now. It’s not just dominating our news — it’s impacting our lives in very significant ways. No matter where you are on the planet, if you’re reading this now, you’re likely being impacted in some very serious way by the various measures governments are taking to slow down — and hopefully halt — the spread of the virus.
One of the consequences for many people is the requirement to remain at home and to engage in “social distancing”. These measures, while necessary, add insult to injury on a number of levels — the most serious being outright job losses for many people (and for many others, loss of income due to temporary business closures or reduced work hours). For many people, “how to occupy your time at home” isn’t going to be their first priority; rather, survival will be number one on the agenda. I think it’s important to acknowledge that reality and its broader implications (especially when it comes to providing donations/support for those who need assistance). But as I’ve noticed — just in the last few days with my entire team working from home — everyone copes differently. Where some folks aren’t bothered at all by working from home, others are already finding that the inability to interact face-to-face each day with co-workers leads to a growing sense of social isolation that can be quite challenging and frightening.
I feel the need to begin my article in this way because I don’t want to trivialise the many struggles people all over the world are going through right now. At the same time, there is the legitimate question of “what to do when you’re stuck at home” — not just how to occupy your time, but how to occupy your mind. And, in particular, how to do so in a way that might be genuinely constructive and fulfilling. If you are reading this article, and you’re following our magazine, then that likely means you’re a gamer of some kind. And while there are an almost endless number of games to play, I do believe that some games possess unique qualities that might be beneficial during this time of greatly-heightened anxiety.So, I thought I’d suggest several titles that you may want to consider over the coming weeks (acknowledging, of course, the enormous variability in terms of what individual people can afford given the substantial economic pressures that exist right now). I’ve chosen these based on what I’m thinking of playing to help keep my spirits up.
Available on virtually all platforms
I’ve been thinking about getting back into The Sims recently — well before the COVID-19 outbreak landed here in Australia. I have on-and-off bouts of playing The Sims; I’ll get obsessed with it for a while and then take a break for a few months, only before diving in again on some new project.
In case you’re wondering, I mention The Sims in general (rather than a specific version) because I think any version is worth playing. That said, The Sims 3 is, in my view, the best iteration of the series — it’s the most expansive (the ability to freely roam around the world without loading screens is amazing), and it has almost limitless options in terms of building your ideal home (and indeed, building your ideal neighbourhood). The Sims 4 has improved with multiple expansions, but I tend to prefer the third game. Either way, I have both, and I bounce between them here and there.
Why do I suggest The Sims, anyway? Well, for one thing, there’s genuine value for money here. Not only are these games relatively cheap now, but they are non-linear sandbox-style experiences without definitive end points. So, the ability to re-play the game over and over again (and have different experiences each time) is highly valuable especially if you’re only able to purchase one new game over the coming weeks or months.
But it’s not just the lack of linearity that makes The Sims suitable for the times. It’s the continuous small achievements that really make it valuable, especially the sense of control and satisfaction these interactions provide. We have just entered into a period where many of us lack — or perceive that we lack — the kind of control we had only a few short weeks ago. As someone who suffers from Generalised Anxiety Disorder, I’ve come to understand that worrying about a lack of control (and catastrophising about what may or may not happen in future) is a key driver of anxiety. I suspect that many people who do not normally feel anxiety — at least not to the point of it being a clinically-diagnosed condition — may now be experiencing it for the first time. And so, one of the truly great things about The Sims, is that the entire experience can be chunked down into small — and highly achievable — “victories” that feel good to achieve.
It’s not just that you’re always achieving a milestone of some description in The Sims. It’s also that, fundamentally, The Sims is about creating things — it might be that you’re building a family and working towards particular creative goals for the members of your household. But more specifically, the ability to spend hours upon hours creating, refining, and upgrading your house can be…well, a meditative experience. This is especially true if you’re doing it while listening to a great podcast, audiobook, or some relaxing music.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons
Although this game isn’t yet released at the time of writing, its arrival is imminent. It’s been many years since we have seen a home console version of Animal Crossing, and it turns out that the latest iteration — which is already receiving rave reviews — is descending upon us at the perfect time.
It’s tempting to compare Animal Crossing to The Sims, but I think these experiences are quite different, especially when considered beyond a cursory glance. For one thing, although it’s possible to interact with other families from your neighbourhood in The Sims, it’s also true that the main focus is really your immediate family and particularly your house. There is something inward-looking about The Sims in that way. Animal Crossing, on the other hand, is outward-looking. Sure, you can decorate your home (and yourself, thanks to a wide array of clothing options), but fundamentally, your experience is much more about the community around you. This is even more true in New Horizons, where your goal is to take an isolated island in the middle of nowhere and turn it into a thriving, bustling town. The ability to progressively establish a population on the island and to ultimately shape it to your heart’s desire feels like the perfect antidote to “social distancing”; in some small way, it addresses our desire to live in a community where we all participate in the gentle rhythms of daily life.
It’s that gentleness, too, that I see as special. Sure, Tom Nook is your creditor and you owe a mortgage to him — but he’s in no hurry to be paid back on any particular timeframe. You can take the time to just be at whatever pace feels right. The fact that the game progresses over real-world-time also means that, to some extent, you’re actually forced to delay gratification. At the same time, you’re incentivised to check-in regularly; to see how your little island is doing, to collect your mail, to build relationships with other villagers, and to tend to the tasks that need doing whenever you’re ready.
Windows, macOS, Linux
I adore Kind Words. Sometimes I think that if I ever built my own video game, this is what it would be like. In many respects, Kind Words isn’t a traditional video game — there are no levels, no bosses, no particular “challenges” to speak of. And certainly no ending! Rather, this is a fascinating social experiment of sorts. You’re able to send — and receive — letters from other people around the world anonymously. You are encouraged to write about anything you like, particularly if it’s something that’s troubling you.
Maybe you are worried about loved ones at this time, or you miss seeing the people in your life in-person. Whatever the reason, there’s something genuinely therapeutic about writing down your thoughts — there is a sense, I find, of unburdening oneself. By committing your fears and anxieties into text, you’re also helping to demystify them to a degree; you’re taking away their power to haunt you. This act alone has inherent value.
But of course, at some point you’re likely to receive a response! What’s so beautiful about Kind Words is that, for the most part, people are genuinely encouraging and supportive. It may be that you receive specific advice for your situation (if that’s what you seek). But quite often, it’s valuable to simply feel heard and to know that you are not alone. At the same time, you may be reading — and responding to — letters sent into the ether by others. There’s a real opportunity to be able to empathise with other folks, and you can feel satisfied knowing that your response is likely to have brightened someone else’s day even if just for a moment.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
Nintendo Switch, Wii U
If you’re a Nintendo Switch owner, you’re very likely to have already played Breath of the Wild, but if you haven’t, I highly recommend it. It’s not just that this is an utterly sublime experience regardless of the circumstances — it also ticks several boxes that grant it entry onto my list.
For one thing, I’d say that Breath of the Wild is a great choice if you had to pick only one new game to play for the coming few months. There are several reasons for this. For one thing, the scale of the experience is massive. Hyrule itself is absolutely enormous; you can spend dozens of hours exploring and still discover new things. Virtually everything in the game is optional, too— even the main Divine Beasts (Breath of the Wild’s stand-in for dungeons). What this means is that you can explore at your own pace and according to your own preferences. You might want to dive in for a quick 30 minute session, or you may want to spend many hours traversing the wilds, uncovering their many secrets.
There’s enormous variety here, too. If you’re keen to dive into rich combat encounters and experiment with a range of weapons and tactics, that path is available to you. But maybe you’re more interested in hunting, gathering, and finding the perfect recipe to protect you from the cold (so you can explore that faraway cave hidden in the distant tundra). The choice is yours. The ability to exercise that level of choice — to experience the world on your own terms — especially one with such endless vistas, is highly appealing at the moment.
No Man’s Sky
PC, PS4, Xbox One
It probably comes as no surprise to you that almost everything I’ve included in this list involves exploration in some way. Video games offer us a unique opportunity to live different lives and to visit places we can only dream of. This is why video games can be a great tool for some much-needed escapism, especially if my mind needs distraction from the goings-on in the world around me.
No Man’s Sky is an interesting one because although it’s a great exploration game in its own right (especially now after many large updates), my suggestion here is actually to play it cooperatively with another person. I’ve recently been playing this with my sister, and we can easily spend a good couple of hours working together on a project in this world. Initially, we decided to spend some time exploring a few solar systems to find an ideal planet to settle on — we wanted something that wasn’t too dangerous or toxic, that had a pretty colour scheme, and plenty of water (waterfront property is always desirable, even at the other end of the galaxy!)
We then set about choosing a site for a new base, and we began the process of taming the wilds around us. There are many ingredients here that are great for anxiety, like the other games I’ve mentioned so far — the busywork of gathering resources can be both satisfying and calming, for example. And there’s enormous satisfaction in slowly watching your base expand as you build it up together. Crucially, too, this is a great social experience you can have online. Sure, you can seriously coordinate when it comes to laying out your base. But you can also chat and joke about anything while you’re doing the busywork parts. It’s fun, it’s social, and it involves repeatedly setting and achieving small, attainable goals.
PlayStation 4, PlayStation VR, PC
I strongly recommend reading James O'Connor’s gorgeous piece, It’s All Connected. This is one of the most beautiful pieces of games writing I’ve ever read, and it feels especially fitting right now. One theme of this piece is grief; and I think it’s fair to say that in various ways, big and small, we’re all feeling some kind of grief at the moment. Tetris Effect is a bold statement — one that really must be felt rather than read about — and it very much centres on the idea of togetherness and the idea of a shared, universal experience.
I’m not going to say anymore here. Please read James’ article. I will leave you with one quote, though (which may entice you to give the full piece a read):
“I won’t be so crude as to suggest that Tetris Effect‘saved’ me, or anything like that. I was not a danger to myself before playing, and I had not forgotten that there was beauty and love in the world. It didn’t end world hunger. It didn’t cure me of my grief. But it made me feel like there was a way for everything — everything! — to be alright, and that we collectively have the power to save ourselves. That’s a lot to put onTetris, I know. But we’re all together in this life. Don’t you forget it.”
This is an easy one, I suppose. But when I’m going through times of crisis or high stress, I like to return to the video game equivalent of comfort food — the games I grew up with, and that I always loved. For me, there are few things more comforting than hearing Koji Kondo’s famous Super Mario Bros. theme or the Hyrule Field theme from any Legend of Zelda game. Playing these games is always comforting. They feel like going home — for some, this might be the closest they can get to the real thing in the foreseeable future.
There are many, many other games I could list here. Civilization VI is another one of those never-ending, highly-addictive, and deeply-satisfying experiences. And titles like Cities Skylines have provided me with endless hours of creative fun (no doubt I’ll be jumping into that again soon, too). Games like Minecraft have the value of being both highly-social and highly-creative spaces for folks of all ages. The list is truly endless.
Despite all the confusion and anxiety surrounding us at the moment, I’m deeply grateful that we have video games. As I hope you’ve seen throughout this piece, video games don’t just have to be about killing time; they can be used as tools to put your mind at ease, to give you a break from the constant bombardment of news, and they can keep you focused on constructive, creative activitiesrather than destructive ones.
You may or may not find this article helpful. But to be honest with you, I feel a little better having written it. This is my own little celebration of the games I’m reaching for in a moment of crisis.
Thank you for reading, and please stay safe and positive as much as you can. You are definitely not alone.
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